Dungeons & Dragons Online are four words that go great together, and yet this recently released online role-playing game isn't necessarily the dream come true its name suggests. That's not because D&D Online doesn't do a generally good job in its specific areas of concentration; it does. However, the game's focus on group-based hack-and-slash dungeon crawls comes at the expense of a lot of other elements you might reasonably expect either from a Dungeons & Dragons game or from an online RPG.
D&D Online isn't the sprawling, complicated game that you get in a lot of other online RPGs. It's set in and around the city of Stormreach, so rather than travel to the far corners of a fantasy world, you'll spend a lot of time in dungeons and sewers hidden beneath this seemingly civilized place. It's structured around combat-intensive quests, so rather than blindly exploring an expansive world or countryside, you'll be spending most of your time undertaking meaningful missions with specific objectives. There's no player-versus-player combat and all of the different character classes are combat oriented, as is the gameplay. The combat itself is fairly simple, fast paced, and action packed, occasionally but not usually tactical or strategic. You aren't constantly gaining new skills and abilities, especially since you gain experience points slowly. The point of the game is to play through and enjoy successive quests together with several other players like you. This isn't a game for those who prefer or expect the option to be able to play solo, though it makes quickly finding a player group quite easy.
This also isn't exactly the Dungeons & Dragons you may be used to from bygone days of sitting around a kitchen table with your friends, or even from playing D&D computer games like Baldur's Gate II or Icewind Dale. Turn-based, tactical combat from other D&D games is replaced by much more of a frenetic melee, requiring lots of right-clicking by weapon-wielding characters. Sometimes it's hard to tell what's going on until somebody, you or the enemy, drops dead. D&D conventions like saving throws and critical hits are at work behind the scenes, but it's hard to pay attention to the statistics during a fever-pitch battle. As for the setting of Stormreach, it combines the predictable swords and sorcery with inklings of industrial technology. Metal automatons and elaborate arrays of metal piping aren't what you'd typically expect from D&D, and yet this doesn't really succeed at making the game's setting any more inspired or imaginative, since it's been done so many times before. Nevertheless, the game's colorful, often attractive setting is pleasing to the senses and filled with some nice little details, though you'll need a fast system to get the game both looking good and running smoothly, and the character animations leave something to be desired. From an audio standpoint, the game fares similarly well, offering up some good atmospheric sounds, decent musical tracks, and the constant repetition of whooshing weapons.
In this dangerous world, you create a character by choosing from a decent selection of races and professions. The professions run the D&D gamut, from fighters and barbarians to wizards and clerics to rogues and bards. However, in the context of the game, it seems clear that standard character classes like fighters, rogues, and clerics widely outnumber other classes like bards and rangers. You might expect for hybrid classes like rangers to be relatively self-sufficient in exchange for not being as adept at one task or another compared with more-specialized classes, but you'd be wrong. D&D Online is strictly designed around players working together in small teams of six or so.
Thankfully, the game's social interface makes it simple to get into an open player group, and most player groups seem ready and willing to take on new members, since everyone's motivated to go questing. You do have the option to attempt to take on a quest all by your lonesome, but you're liable to fail miserably if you try--something you might have to learn the hard way if you appreciate having the option to do some questing on your own. Go dungeon-crawling all by yourself, and your small number of hit points will quickly be reduced to nothing by various monsters from slimes to the living dead to bugbears, buying you a trip back out of the dungeon and some experience debt--punishment for your foolhardiness, but at least your character doesn't get permanently wiped out like in traditional D&D (though options for hardcore rules might have been nice). After all, you can't easily recover from wounds in the middle of a quest without a healer, and you're vulnerable to deadly traps without the keen senses of a rogue...but healers and rogues can't fight well on their own.
It isn't difficult to understand one's place in one of the game's skirmishes, since the D&D rules encourage you to specialize with certain weapons, spells, or tactics. In between fights, there's exploring to do, barrels to break, levers to throw, and so on. The game's dozens of different quests offer a good balance of pure combat and light puzzle-solving, but while each one is technically different, there's still a sameness they all share in common. The important thing is, though, that D&D Online is structured in a way that constantly keeps you in active motion. Whether you're spotting secret doors, swimming through underwater labyrinths, defending against massive kobold ambushes, or smashing barrels and things, you're always doing this to make progress through to the end of your quest.
Unique, atmospheric narration--coming from a disembodied dungeon master--sets the mood for each individual quest, while an automap feature and a solid interface helps keep you oriented. It's always fun to set foot in any new quest for the first time, although it's more than likely that you'll be there with people who've already gone through it numerous times before, diminishing some sense of the surprise. For better or worse, at least you won't run into other players during a given quest. All of the quests are "instances" that offer a fresh challenge exclusively for your party, though this takes away from the massively multiplayer feel of the game. Most quests can easily be completed in a reasonable sitting, although some quests are part of a greater, story-driven series, which can take much longer to complete. There seems like a good balance of quick-hit and lengthier adventures to undertake.
Quests are rated in length, level, and difficulty, and it's good that you can optionally repeat quests at a higher difficulty level for commensurately greater dangers and rewards. It's also interesting that you earn experience points for a quest only upon successfully completing it, as opposed to from every individual kill. This is evidently how D&D Online avoids putting players through the typical grind of having to repeatedly kill the same monsters over and over just to level up...but, honestly, you still end up doing something similar. You'll naturally be motivated to get better equipment and grow stronger, and the way to do that is to gain experience, by undertaking the most rewarding quests over and over. You get diminishing experience returns from repeating quests, forcing you to eventually move on. Quests don't always seem well balanced in terms of risk and reward. Take two similarly long, similarly challenging quests, and one might net you three times the experience and better loot than the other. Even so, it's exciting to explore the breadth of the game's content. Initially you're funneled through a few starter quests, but it isn't long before the game really opens up, permitting you to undertake all kinds of different quests in whichever order you choose.
It's worth noting that D&D Online is only moderately successful in fostering the role-playing aspects of Dungeons & Dragons. You don't get much in the way of character customization options, and while taverns throughout Stormreach serve as social hubs, there's not much to do in them except heal up and quickly get into quest groups. Combat resolves so quickly that there's really no time for chitchat during a typical encounter, or even during an entire quest. In fact, D&D Online does a fine job of integrating voice chat straight into the game--all you need is a microphone headset and you can talk, rather than type, to your party members. It's a great way to quickly relay bits of info in battle, yet repeatedly hearing strangers' voices sooner takes you out of the Dungeons & Dragons experience than draws you in. The trade-off is worth it, so long as you'd prefer to quickly, cleanly rush through quests than to lose yourself in a fantasy setting.
Burdened with monthly subscription fees, games such as D&D Online are naturally held to a higher standard when it comes to the breadth and sheer volume of their content. On those fronts, this game might not necessarily have what it takes to keep you glued over the long haul, especially when a similar game like Guild Wars offers at least as much if not more content, without asking you for your credit card number in exchange. Here, you don't have tons of leveling up to look forward to, and there isn't some elaborate competitive player-versus-player element to keep you busy once you max out your character. But there's more than enough good content to keep the typical D&D fan intrigued and entertained for around those first 30 days you get free with the purchase of the retail box. Beyond that, it's going to depend on how quickly you've consumed the content and what types of friends you've got in the game. Having cut their teeth on the Asheron's Call series, D&D Online's experienced developers intend to continue supplementing their game with add-on "modules" that introduce new quests, rewards, and challenges. This dedicated focus on the questing and adventure portions of the game ultimately makes sense and should help keep the quality of D&D Online's content a cut above the traditional online RPG. But in exchange, D&D Online doesn't deliver the broad scope and wide variety of features you could find in other similar games.